The first thing you’ll notice upon opening Harbors by Donald Quist are the two epigraphs introducing the collection of essays, the first by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the second by Lucille Clifton. Clifton is a contemporary black American poet, and the former Poet Laureate of Maryland, where Quist spent most of his early childhood years. Clifton is steeped in feminist politics and pushes poetic boundaries, a contrast to the British Victorian embodied by Tennyson. This white European bard held the Poet Laureateship for both Great Britain and Ireland and is lauded for his attention to craft and melodious lines. Beginning with these two poets makes sense. It highlights Quist’s respect for both classic literature, as well as its projected future — we must know our history in order to understand the future. Like the diverse geographical regions from which his introductory poets hail, Quist always has his feet firmly planted in multiple homelands: Maryland and South Carolina, U.S. and Thailand, the double consciousness of being both black and American. His duality starts at conception, since his mother is black American and his father Ghanaian.
This doubleness affects even the identification of the book’s genre. This collection seems more like creative non-fiction because of its use of the author’s name in many of the pieces, but the publisher has labeled the group essays. But these days it is increasingly common to blend/blur/bend genres, so wrestling with how to label this collection is essentially futile. Sadly, many readers may have missed Donald Quist’s first debut short story collection, Let Me Make You a Sandwich, because it was a self-published collection funded mostly by Kickstarter fan pledges. However, readers should investigate Let Me because it also serves as a primer of sorts for Harbors.
Where Quist truly excels in Harbors is when he utilizes and creates new forms. “Tanglewood” is written entirely in the risky second person point-of-view. Of course, writers such as Junot Díaz, Claudia Rankine, Pam Houston and others have popularized second-person narration. But despite its quasi-popularity, it’s a gamble, because the narration is difficult to sustain for extended amounts of time. A different kind of POV experimentation occurs in “In Other Words,” where Quist the narrator speaks from both the “I” of Donald as well as the “I” of his wife, “P.” This crafty trick allows the narrator to critique himself with a fine-toothed comb: “He says, ‘Why do I live in this country?’ I ask him what he means, assuming he’s just being dramatic — Donald is very dramatic.” Occasionally this shifting point of view can be confusing, but whatever messiness it creates, the dazzling results are worth it. The essay “Lesson Plan” begins as a written academic lesson plan similar to what Quist’s narrator, and Quist himself, would use in his own classroom that he heads in Thailand. It ends in “Notes for Citation,” but twice erupts into a Q&A from the narrator’s students. This Q&A may seem rudimentary, but the issues discussed bring racial stereotypes back into focus without settling for easy answers.
“Have you sold drugs?
–Yes, but that wasn’t why I was arrested.
Why were you arrested?
–I did something I shouldn’t have done and it’s a lot easier to get arrested in America when you look like me.
Why is it easier to get arrested?
–Because of racial bias, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t.”
Two of the most touching stories (and more traditional in format) are “Junk” and “Till Next Time, Take Care Of Yourselves, And Each Other.” The first is a moving account of the narrator’s (and his wife’s) decision to clean up his mother’s house before he goes overseas, a task complicated by the fact that the mother is a hoarder. She is also simultaneously dealing with the slow deterioration of her eyesight due to a medical condition. The story tugged at my emotions. I know the mother’s tendency to hold on too long to household items won’t help her hold on to her son. “I might not be able to correct my mother’s junk eyes or clear the mess from her home, but I can pack up my own life in a way that gives my existence order.” I sense (and I suspect readers will as well) that Quist is leaving as a way to control what is essentially uncontrollable — his mother’s hoarding and slow descent into blindness.
“Till Next Time” describes the narrator’s relationship with another important woman in his life, his grandmother Thelma. While she was a woman who smoke, drank and didn’t attend church, she practiced her faith and generosity by advising and assisting random neighbors. After mock-therapy sessions with neighbors Thelma would, “posit a final thought for them to consider as they went on their way, and sometimes I’d notice her visitors appeared a little less sad or angry or scared than they had looked before.” Quist balances Thelma’s (also known as The Old Lady) pseudo-saintly spirit with her penchant for Jerry Springer episodes, illustrating that people are much more complex than we give them credit for. And sometimes, like the Springer Show, the very thing that people denigrate can be extremely therapeutic and necessary to economically disadvantaged people.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the stellar “I’ll Fly Away: Notes on Economy Class Citizenship”. First published at The Rumpus, it is required reading for those contemplating the racial and class complexities of contemporary America. This puts Quist in company with other writers meditating on race and citizenship: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rankine, and James Baldwin. But don’t overlook the tender moments of interpersonal connection in this book. Mastering narrative like other transnational writers such as Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, Quist captures coming-of-age dilemmas and family dramas with finesse. Yes, there are countless other essays, short stories, and poems out there currently examining the borderlands of human existence and racial identity. But readers should flock to Quist because he illustrates that being a decent human being isn’t simple or easy. Quist articulates not only his geographical, ethnic, and class complexities well, but explores the grey spaces in between with delicacy and verve.
In the end, I continue to return to “The Animals We Invent.” As a black American female struggling everyday with growing racial tensions, I find comfort when Quist’s narrator says, “I want to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting.” What a beautiful sentiment; what a wonderful place to find shelter.